Monday Motivation: You can’t write well if you don’t do this simple, difficult thing

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Are there secrets to good writing? You know all the platitudes as well as I do, the ones that insist that it’s mostly a matter of sweat, and very little of inspiration. The idea that persistence ultimately pays off. But these are hardly well-kept secrets.

We all remember Gary Player’s line that “the more you practise, the luckier you get”. We’ve read Malcolm Gladwell and while we might have admired him for his perspicacity all those years ago, we now find his ten thousand hours of not much more use than any other truism.

Of course, there’s a great deal of truth in these verities, – but can’t writers come up with anything better? Something that pierces to the heart of the secret of good writing?

We’ve just spent two weeks in Venice on our annual writing retreat and my (exhilarating and exhausting) experience of working with a handful of writers on their projects has taught me something that I’d like to pass on to you.

It’s not an earth-shattering insight, I have to say, but the more I ponder it the more depth I think it has.

Here it is:

If we want to write something that works, that’s compelling, that manages to convey half of the wonderful thoughts that prompted it, then we have to pay attention.

Let me repeat that: we have to pay attention.

On a number of different levels.

We have to begin with a story that we’re passionate about. A story that we judge is worth spending months – or years – getting right. To get that story right, we have to motivate every twist and turn; we have to set things up in order to make dramatic outcomes possible; we have to earn every surprise.

You can’t do this if you’re not paying attention.

We have to sink into our characters, living their lives, living their choices. This is not something we can dip into, this is not a casual exercise. This takes courage and it involves risk.  It also demands that we respect our creations. We have to respect their limitations, the damage that life has done them, their courage.

You can’t do this if you’re not paying attention.

Part of our job as writers is to create universes in which our stories play out. (Every work of fiction brings a whole cosmos into being.) To succeed in that huge ambition, we have to get the details right. The details that compel belief and that inspire delight.

To do that, we have to pay attention.

That’s all folks: if you’re as serious about the stories you want to make as the writers we worked with in Venice were about their stories, then you have to pay attention.

Happy writing,


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